I’ve been privileged to keep company with some very cool, very knowledgeable people during the course of my law enforcement career. However, during the latter part of 2008 I was lucky enough to work with what I consider to be the finest group of Border Patrol Agents assigned to a small unit on the busiest shift at the busiest station in the Southwest. As a relatively new Border Patrol Agent, I diligently worked to become proficient at every facet of the job, but I placed a particularly high value on knowledge and navigation of our Area of Operation (AOR). That, along with a solid work ethic, earned me a highly coveted slot in ATV training and an assignment to the Nogales Station All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) unit, working 4pm to midnight. What could be better than getting paid to ride around the beautiful southern Arizona desert on an ATV? Nothing, that’s what.
On a stormy evening towards the tail end of Arizona’s monsoon season we had just finished tracking a group of suspected illegal entrants who had tripped a sensor, only to find out that we had been beaten to the punch. A few hours of tracking led us to the conclusion that the group had loaded into a vehicle and was long gone. A light rain was falling as we trailered the ATV’s and found a secluded parking spot near the area in which we had just been beat to eat and water up. Being type-A personalities, we didn’t take losing that group very well and were discussing what we could have done better in the previous scenario. As we were planning the best route to backtrack the trail the smugglers had used, hoping to find some possible routes of interception for future groups using the same trail, the radio chirped. One of the infrared scope operators came across the net asking somewhat frantically whether we were still in the area. Our senior Agent, Jason, picked up the mic and calmly responded that we were. A second passed and the scope operator asked us to switch radio channels to a direct frequency. We did.
“Hey guys, I have a large group of packers (Border Patrol slang for dudes carrying bundles of what is usually marijuana) heading towards the neighborhood at the top of the ridge in front of you guys”. This particular neighborhood is situated on a horse shoe shaped road that apexes due north and has two parallel streets that come off of an east/west aligned road. The road climbs up the ridge at a gradual and winding grade on the east side and then comes back down at a steep angle, on the west side of it.
“How many bodies do you have?” Jason asked. “About 20-25, almost all of them are packing,” replied the scope operator.
Some quick math on our parts indicated this could be about a 1,000 lb load (most packers carry 50 pound bundles of Mexican ditch weed). We immediately started to plan to intercept the group. However, the scope operator suddenly came back over the radio with an ominous “Standby”. This particular scope operator had a flair for being somewhat dramatic at times and would often play up the significance of what he was looking at to get an immediate response from Agents. After a few agonizing moments he said, “OK guys, I have three vehicles that just stopped right near the group and the mules are loading the dope.”
Jason was already in the driver’s seat. He fired up the Excursion and started pulling out while the rest of us were hastily slinging our rifles and prepping for the impending interdiction. According to the scope operator, the vehicles were all loaded with bundles and coming down the steep western side of the hill. We decided to ascend the hill on the same side with the truck and trailer to intercept them.
Let me be clear, there was no plan going into this. There was only four guys all talking at the same time offering what we should do, while rapidly ascending a steep hill in a beat up old Ford Excursion, towing a long, heavy trailer and four ATV’s on a dark evening in light rain. We were heading towards three vehicles loaded with dope and the unknown. Jason knew speed would be our friend in this scenario, so he acted by setting us on an intercept course with the vehicles.
We were ascending the hill with our lights off to gain a little bit of a surprise advantage. We saw the vehicles descending towards us and Jason gunned it to close the distance. I realized that the doors for the back were still locked and couldn’t unlock them without the driver hitting the button, so I started yelling “UNLOCK! UNLOCK! UNLOCK!” Jason said “What??? BLOCK THEM? OK?!?” That’s exactly what he did. He pulled the truck and trailer to block the width of the road just in front of the lead vehicle coming towards us. The rest of us in the truck just rolled with it, and took action.
I was on the passenger side in the backseat, before the truck was at a stop, I was out along with the guy riding shotgun. We raced to make contact with the first vehicle and heard tires spinning uselessly on wet pavement. All three of the vehicles were futilely trying to reverse up the slick pavement on that steep hill. My partner and I made contact with the first vehicle. While he was giving orders and covering me, I stowed my rifle, ripped open the driver’s door, and pulled the driver from the vehicle. While my partner and I were occupied with the first vehicle, two green flashes streaked past us up the hill towards the other two vehicles. I had no idea Jason and our other partner could move that fast, and up-hill too! They moved to interdict the next vehicle and cover the third. While I was cuffing the driver from the first vehicle, my partner did a quick sweep of the interior and then moved to assist Jason and our other partner.
It was over in a matter of seconds. We had three dudes in custody along with three vehicles with what would end up being mas o menos 1200 lbs of marijuana.
Once things had calmed down a bit, and we had gotten some back up to help us transport vehicles and suspects to the station, we did an after-action report amongst ourselves. It came with the stark realization that things could have gone completely, terribly, tragically wrong for us in a heartbeat. If any of the three delinquents we had in custody had the slightest bit of intestinal fortitude and commitment to the fight, they could have used their vehicle as a weapon. We would have been in a world of hurt. Any one of the four of us could have been run over at any point during our contact. We got lucky. It was a good thing that we weren’t facing hardened criminals, committed to the cause. We got the Junior Varsity team of smugglers that night. Violence of action and the fact that all three bad guys defaulted into the flight response won the day for us.
This particular situation reminded me of the George S. Patton quote, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Most situations like this one don’t afford you the luxury of making an initial plan or even a secondary one, you need to just act. Even then, things don’t always go as planned. Having a good group of dudes on your side that will stand shoulder to shoulder with you goes a long way to facilitate you attaining your goals or accomplishing a mission. Not to mention the myriad of other factors that will play a vital role in leading you towards a successful outcome. Factors such as: high standards in training, diligent physical and skill training, Standard Operating Procedures, Immediate Action Drills, and lessons learned from debriefing situations such as these. Timing on most things in life is hardly ever perfect or ideal. But, if you happen to find yourself in the right place at the right time with the right support structure but you don’t have a solid plan, take action anyway. Move towards that objective. We are not guaranteed tomorrow. Get out there make big moves. Make big mistakes and learn from it all.
Live for today and above all, Die Living.
Jared Anderson is former law enforcement officer and medic with 15 years of experience at the local, state and federal levels. Currently, he finds himself back in school pursing another career. He is an avid outdoorsman and pursues the stoke where he can find it. He spends most of his free time with wife and kids.